Last week I received the news that my beloved fourth-grade teacher, Marilyn Hughes, passed away in late December. Marilyn served as a teacher in the Aspen School District for more than 20 years, and I was blessed to be her student the year she initiated a progressive third- and fourth-grade curriculum at the old Yellow Brick school on Bleeker Street.
In addition to engaging us in Odyssey of the Mind competitions and refusing to give anyone an unnecessary Band-Aid, Marilyn devoted entire mornings to solving Anglo-Saxon riddles or to composing descriptive prose while listening to Prokofiev. I also recall a day when, delighted by my interest in a geometric wooden puzzle, she replaced my decimal homework for the week with the sole task of deciphering the game's mathematical code.
Marilyn bequeathed to me her love for poetry so indelibly that I used to slip under restaurant tables to write poems on the backs of envelopes or wine lists. Her faith in my writing surpassed even my own ambitions, and the last line of my report-card comment earnestly read, "If Annie is not published by the time she is eleven, there is no justice in the world."
A few years after I entered middle school, Marilyn and her family relocated to Pinehurst, N.C., where she retired from teaching. While I thought about contacting her recurrently (attempting several hapless searches for her in college, when the Internet was still raw and my heart rawer still), I never connected with her again. The unessential urgencies of deadlines, dinners, and dithering romances somehow seized precedence over looking her up to thank her.
I have been a fourth-grade teacher at Aspen Country Day School for almost five years now, and there isn't a day that slips by when I don't incorporate her philosophies into my practice. Each unit plan I write is steeped in creative project-based learning, and I remain emboldened by a love for poetry, which Marilyn so ardently kindled in me that year. While I never did get published at age 11, I wish she could have known that the best parts of myself, professionally and personally, are a product of her teachings.
At the risk of succumbing to sweeping generalizations, I think I'm in good company when I admit that teaching is hard. Unrelentingly hard. Those who disagree aren't doing their jobs.
In our current, data-driven climate, coupled with scanty salaries and fussy parents, it is easy for us to question whether the payoff is worth it. It is easy to question whether we really make a difference, whether we've found what we were seeking when we first ingenuously entered into this service. Yet this week has reminded me that our work is essential. It is out of great reverence for Marilyn and for all of the teachers who changed my life that I devote my heart to my students.
I speak to each teacher who is inevitably tired today, inevitably patient, inevitably valiant. I speak most humbly and directly to you all to say how much I honor you. It is with an unabashed act of faith that we continue this work, but I do believe it is worth it.